BERLIN — It only took hours until the backlash started. As investigators were still examining the site of a truck attack at a Christmas market in Berlin, right-wing politicians in Germany and across Europe demanded a tougher stance on immigration. Some even described the victims of Monday's attack as "Angela Merkel's fatalities."
The attack, along with the news on Wednesday that German officials are searching for a Tunisian asylum seeker whose identity papers were found inside the truck used in the assault, will likely play into the hands of populists who are on the rise in several European nations, including in Germany. That has some of the almost 1 million refugees who arrived in Germany last year afraid of renewed political backlash against them.
"People are shocked, especially those who helped refugees during the crisis," said Khaild Alaboud, a 32-year-old Syrian journalist living in Berlin who came to the country with the help of Reporters without Borders, an NGO that supports journalists around the world. Like many other refugees living in Germany, Alaboud fears that his German neighbors and friends will become suspicious of him as the result of crimes committed by others.
Ahmad Khattab, a 24-year-old Syrian who has lived near the southern German city of Stuttgart for almost a year, said previous terror attacks over the summer had already driven locals and refugees apart: “Unfortunately, most, if not all Germans had already stereotyped refugees." He now fears the emergence of "parallel societies," a Germany in which Muslim newcomers have little contact with locals who are afraid or angry at refugees.
Political backlash is also a major concern. "German politicians will change the way they deal with us refugees," Khattab said. "Laws will be passed that are not in our interest."
Mohammad Ahmad, a 29-year-old refugee from Aleppo who lives in the town of Ludwigsburg, held similar fears. "Germans are cultured. Such incidents don’t change their sense of rectitude," he said. "However, right-wing parties are exploiting such incidents to spread fear and boost populist mentality among Germans."
Yet some refugees also fault the German government for not taking the threat of terrorism seriously enough. Alaboud expressed discontent with German authorities, who he says have not yet understood the full threat Islamist terrorists pose. Rasha al-Khadra, a 40-year-old dentist and a single mother of three children from Damascus, agreed that European nations must "deal with" the threat of terrorism to prevent populists from gaining ground. She said that many migrants who have come to Germany are unwilling to assimilate, fueling resentment against all refugees among Germans.
Experts have warned that such tensions could easily escalate. In a handbook released by the Islamic State last year, the group itself publicly imagined a scenario in which Muslim refugees living in Western countries would turn against their host nations as a result of frequent anti-immigrant tensions.
Such predictions have alarmed German authorities, especially in eastern Germany. In April, Germany's federal police force warned that anti-refugee sentiments could easily spiral into violence.
"Apart from physical harm, one has to reckon with murders," authorities concluded back in April. They also argued that neo-Nazis had fueled a "climate of fear," with journalists, pro-refugee volunteers and politicians being particular targets.
For refugees like Khadra who live in bigger cities rather than rural areas, such warnings sound exaggerated at this stage. “I don’t wear a headscarf, I speak some German. It’s not perfect, but [Germans] respect me for it," she said.
But skepticism of refugees is not limited to fringe parties or neo-Nazis. On Tuesday, Horst Seehofer, the head of Bavaria's Christian Social Union and a critical Merkel ally, was among the first to criticize the chancellor publicly.
"[We] owe it to the victims, those affected and the entire populous to rethink and adjust our entire immigration and security policy," he said on Tuesday. Seehofer has pushed Merkel for more than a year to adopt a more stringent refugee policy. His latest comments came during a speech delivered only 14 hours after the attack occurred, and the comments sparked strong criticism on social media and among political opponents.
For Khadra's part, she hopes that Germans will continue to show her the hospitality she has experienced since she arrived in the country last year. She came to Germany on Dec. 19, 2015 — exactly one year before Monday's attack.